As I mentioned previously, the book and movie “The Help”, by Kathryn Stockett, have been surrounded by controversy even as they have both performed very successfully in sales. One such criticism came from the Association of Black Women Historians. They said:
Both versions of The Help also misrepresent African American speech and culture. Set in the South, the appropriate regional accent gives way to a child-like, over-exaggerated “black” dialect. In the film, for example, the primary character, Aibileen, reassures a young white child that, “You is smat, you is kind, you is important.” In the book, black women refer to the Lord as the “Law,” an irreverent depiction of black vernacular.
You can read the Association’s entire statement here. I am not an expert on dialects of the Southern United States, much less those of the particular time period represented in the movie. But I think I would agree that the maids’ dialogue in the film is probably not a completely accurate portrayal.
There is a variety of English known as AAVE (African-American Vernacular English, sometimes referred to as “ebonics”), that has some more noticeable differences from SAE (Standard American English) than some other dialects. Some of these differences are phonological and affect the pronunciation of words, but some are syntactic and affect the construction of sentences. Very briefly, to provide some background for analyzing dialogue in “The Help,” I am including some information on this variety. The image below is a scan of the most relevant page on syntactic features of AAVE from An Introduction to Language, by Victoria Fromkin, Robert Rodman and Nina Hyams.
With this context of Be-deletion, Habitual Be, let’s revisit some of the maids’ dialogue from “The Help,” which I posted the other day.
Let’s start with Aibileen’s mantra that she repeats often to the child she cares for:
You is kind, you is smart, you is important.
That doesn’t fit with either the be-deletion rule or the Habitual “Be” usage. Since this is a construction where SAE could contract the copula, (“you’re kind,” etc.), it is likewise a construction where be-deletion is possible in AAVE, (“you kind.”) However, when it comes to Habitual “Be”, the absence of a copula communicates a temporary state of being. It’s very similar to the ser/estar forms in Spanish. To convey what Aibileen clearly intends in this case, though, that no matter if the little girl has accidentley peed when it’s socially unacceptable or whatever the case, she as a person should believe she is enduring kind, smart, and important, the construction really should be “you be kind, you be smart, you be important.”
The be-deletion in some of Aibileen’s other lines are in line with these rules:
Aibileen: She [Jolene] havin’ bridge club right now, may I take a message?
Miss Jolene isn’t perpetually having bridge club, so this form is correct for AAVE to communicate that at the moment she is busy. But then, she says:
It hard. You go try and see. [on recruiting more maids to tell Skeeter their stories.]
[one of her white charges was] always axin’ me how come I’s black. I told him one time it was ‘cuz I drunk too much coffee.
To me the construction “It be hard” is more fitting; in the conversation where this line appears, it isn’t the case that tonight they’ve been trying to recruit and having difficulty. It is the case that they’ve been trying, over a long period of time, without success. So the Habitual “Be” form makes much more sense. I’m not a speaker of the AAVE dialect, so I can’t provide a judgment, but to me “it hard” doesn’t even sound okay the way that “it be hard” does. (Please leave me a comment if you do have a native speaker judgment on this or any other construction). Of course “it hard” is a construction that would allow contraction in SAE, (“it’s hard,”), so, maybe this is just plain copula deletion. But in the second construction, Aibileen uses a conjugated form of “to be” not used with first person in SAE, and contracts it; “how come I’s [I is] black”. So how do we analyze that? Is this the same pattern being used in the “you is kind, you is smart, you is important” phrasing? Why does a single speaker, Aibileen, exhibit such inconsistent copula usages? Why is one of her most iconic, oft-repeated lines (“you is smart” etc) in a construction that she really doesn’t use throughout the rest of the film?
AAVE is one variety of English, and there are several variations within this variety, just like any other dialect. Every speaker may have their own way of speaking that does not necessarily follow the general trend. Here’s a source that says generalizing the use of “is” can be a feature (“an exception to the rule”) of AAVE. So, maybe that could explain those constructions. But…to me, it lacks consistency. When real people speak a dialect, (and everybody that speaks a language speaks a dialect, or variety, of that language), they follow consistent grammar rules. Maybe those rules don’t match the ones you learn in school, but that is the way the human brain produces and interprets language data, through a system of rules. That’s what Linguists mean when we say grammar, the rules in a native speaker’s head. What’s frustrating to me in this movie is that the dialogue of the maids does not appear to be consistent with itself, does not necessarily represent the way any one individual actually speaks, but does appear (to me) to mash together features from several varieties of AAVE and in the process perhaps unintentionally prolong sociolinguistic stereotyping.
There is no such thing as an ignorant or simple dialect. But there are social stereotypes associated with various ways of speaking, (and the attitudes around AAVE in particular have long been a hot-button issue. See discussions on the topic at The Linguist List.) You can tell me that I’m over-analyzing, over-thinking it, it’s just a movie, it can’t be expected to be held up as a reliable reference. And that’s true. But did you know that the alien Na’vi language from Avatar is an actual language system, complete with phonological, morphological, and syntactic rules, that the filmmakers paid a linguist to create? Yeah. Paul Frommer, and he spent four years developing it before the movie came out. And I know “The Help” didn’t have the budget that Avatar did. But was an effort even made to be historically accurate with the maids’ dialect? The only reference I could find (via google) to a dialect coach for the film, (Nadia Venesse according to the credits), was in an article that said
“…the dialect coach has been really specific and has recorded people whose dialects were pure according to that time period.”
But that was from an interview with Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays one of the white Southern ladies. Was the same effort made with all the dialects represented in the film? I have to assume so, but why didn’t any interviewer think to ask Viola Davis or Octavia Spencer about that? Their lines are much more interesting, from a dialect perspective. Did people think it would be insensitive to ask? Were people afraid to approach the subject at all, given the touchy nature of the subject and the history of debates over attitudes towards AAVE in this country? Did people think about it at all or did they just assume that’s how black maids in the sixties talked?
Am I the only one thinking about this?
Does anybody with more expertise want to weigh in?